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by James Mitchell
15 February 2023
It's hard to see Nicola Sturgeon's time as SNP leader as anything other than a failure

It's hard to see Nicola Sturgeon's time as SNP leader as anything other than a failure

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” So concluded Enoch Powell in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain.

It is difficult to see her term as SNP leader as anything other than a failure measured against the goal Nicola Sturgeon had set her party. There will be more generous accounts of her leadership, especially from within her party, but history will not be kind to the leader given the exceptional legacy she inherited. 

Not only was the SNP in the strongest position in its history but it is difficult to think of a party leader at any time in British history to have had such a glorious inheritance. A leader may be judged by whether the party is in a healthier state than inherited. It would be generous to say that Nicola Sturgeon leaves her party in much the same state as she found it. In reality, her successor inherits a party in a bit of a mess.

Her resignation should help it get out of the hole she created with her commitment to a ‘de facto’ referendum. But her record in government was stronger on rhetoric than performance and her successor will inherit the criticism of weakness in policy delivery. 

Scotland is left deeply divided in the wake of her leadership. For a brief period after the independence referendum she seemed set to build bridges but she misread the public mood following the Brexit result. Her comments on the need to depolarise Scottish politics in her resignation statement suggest little self-awareness. 

These last eight years have been the independence referendum continuing years for the SNP while there has been little public appetite for another referendum any time soon. But Scotland’s polarised politics served the the SNP well. So long as the SNP could mobilise over 40 per cent of voters who supported independence then it was secure as Scotland’s largest party. But it did little to advance cause of independence.

But it was not just that Nicola Sturgeon had been unable to build support for independence much, if at all, beyond the 2014 vote. Her commitment to close the educational attainment gap exemplified a tendency to chase headlines with too little thought on delivery. The mounting list of problems and weaknesses has been difficult for even this most brilliant communicator and debater to explain away.

Her party will now go through a difficult period. SNP activists have been remarkably trusting of the leader but have been showing signs of impatience. Private concerns began to be voiced publicly from amongst some party loyalists. These concerns may now be more muted at the special conference in deference to her resignation but the pressure has been building and will need to go somewhere.

The SNP needs a period of reflection. It needs a very different kind of leadership, more collective and open, more honest with itself and the party. It needs to acknowledge the weaknesses, problems and challenges that it has avoided in recent years. 

It will take a brave leader to confront these, especially in an internal party leadership contest.  But whoever wins needs to facilitate real debate. The SNP national executive would be wise to cancel the special conference and allow leadership candidates set out their stalls. But it may be too late for that.

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